Rejecting Resumes With Spelling Errors: A Silly and Costly Hiring Mistake

When you analyze the data, it becomes instantly clear that screening out resumes because of spelling and grammar issues is a costly and antiquated practice. For example, many people simply assume that any job that requires writing can’t be successfully filled by someone who is a weak speller. That doesn’t explain why writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Austen all succeeded wildly despite being noted bad spellers.

Many also assume that resume errors indicate an inability to do detailed work. However, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, and, of all people, Steve Jobs succeeded by being detail-oriented, despite having dyslexia, with its associated difficulty in spelling and identifying word errors.

It’s also important to realize that firms may literally be losing a majority of their applicants because 58% of all resumes contain errors. Some companies, like Google, have an initial resume screening software that automatically eliminates resumes containing errors from further consideration. Such a screening practice may be violating the rights of disabled, Blacks, old people, and those who have English as a second language. And of course, you’ll never know the quality of these rejected applicants and what they could really do. The finality of the initial spelling error screen-out means you’ll never interview them to learn more. 

Can you imagine refusing to hire Albert Einstein because of a resume spelling error? Einstein himself noted that spelling and grammatical errors in his works were a constant source of frustration. “I cannot write in English,” he said, “because of the treacherous spelling.”

The Many Problems Associated With Using Resume Content for Spelling Assessment 

The following section contains facts and data that reveal using resume errors as a screening criterion is almost impossible to justify using business, diversity, humanitarian, or legal reasons. You don’t have to read every word of this article. Simply scan through it in order to better understand the many negatives associated with this practice.

1. Screening for Spelling Will Dramatically Lower Your Hiring Results

Rather than a minor factor, research has shown that screening for spelling errors will dramatically lower your quality of hire. 

  • Bad spelling has the same impact as professional experience. One study found that resume spelling errors in an application have the same detrimental impact on an individual applicant’s chances of being shortlisted as a lack of professional experience. Something as minor as spelling should not carry the same weight as professional experience. However, because the screening occurs so early and permanently, it unintentionally lowers the quality of the candidates that you have available for interviewing.

2. Screening For Spelling Will Dramatically Reduce Your Applicant Pool

In a world where most firms are suffering from a lack of qualified applicants, screening for resume errors may reduce your pool by more than 50%.

  • You may prematurely screen out a majority of your applicants. During this time of severe applicant shortages, initially screening out those with spelling errors will dramatically reduce your applicant pool. In fact, 77% of employers will immediately screen out a resume with typos or bad grammar (CareerBuilder survey), and 58% of resumes contain this type of error. One spelling study found that well over 50% of Americans earn low marks on spelling tests made up of everyday words. So requiring perfect spelling will automatically reduce your applicant pool.
  • It may cause a reduction in the number of experienced and employed people. You might be surprised to learn that the fewest number of resume errors usually occur among the unemployed — simply because they had many more people review their resume. Experienced employed people may have less time to devote to perfecting their resume, so rejecting those with spelling errors may disproportionately cause you to reject the most experienced employed people. You also lose many of those who customize their resumes to your job/company or who haven’t updated their resume for years. Rushed customization/updating is likely to include errors.
  • It may also cause a reduction in the number of global applicants available for interviews. English is a second language for many global applicants. Strict spelling/grammar requirements will disproportionately screen out a large number of your global applicants who could actually do the job and add global experience to your firm.
  • Expect a reduction in new-generation applicants in your interview pool. It is also likely that older generations will take spelling errors more seriously. Academic research has shown that those who are constantly on social media (the newer generations) often have their normal writing influenced by its constant use of abbreviations, uncommon slang, and extremely low spelling and grammar expectations. The net result will be fewer new-generation applicants who will make it past the resume-screening stage. This will especially hurt organizations that rely on hiring many new-generation employees.

3. You May Be Screening Out Based on a Non-Validated Selection Factor

You may dramatically reduce diversity and you may also lower new-hire performance unless you have validated using resume errors as an assessment criterion.

  • Attention to detail may not be valid selection criteria. Many people cite the need for attention to detail as a primary reason for rejecting candidates with resume spelling/typo errors. That rejection is based on the faulty assumption that not catching errors in a resume is an indication that the person doesn’t care about or pay attention to details. Scientifically, that is simply not true. Research from the University of Sheffield found that the reason our typos get through isn’t that we’re stupid or careless. Instead, when we’re proofreading our own work, we literally don’t see our own typos because of a mental phenomenon where what we see on the screen is competing with the version that exists in our heads. That confusion makes it difficult for us to find our own errors. It’s also unfair to applicants to use this attention-to-detail standard on resumes unless you let applicants know that the resume itself is being used as a detail-assessment tool. 
  • Spelling may not be a business necessity. Relying on a seemingly neutral test that has an adverse impact was found by the Supreme Court in Griggs v. Duke Power Co., to be illegal if the employer cannot show the policy is justified by business necessity. So you face the possibility of having to prove that spelling and grammar (not communications) are a business necessity. Writing resumes is not likely part of any new-hire’s job. And an adverse impact may reduce your diversity.

4. Spelling May Inadvertently Decrease Representation From Numerous Diverse Groups

If diversity is one of your goals, requiring perfect spelling and grammar may dramatically reduce the diversity of applicants in the interview pool. In some cases, the resulting discrimination may also violate corporate values or create legal issues.

  • Discrimination because of disabilities. Those with disabilities like dyslexia are less likely to be able to spell or to catch spelling errors. Because 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, it makes sense to accommodate them. In addition, those with mental-health or vision issues may also face reduced chances of being hired simply because of their disability. Disability advocates argue that providing employees with spell check would be a reasonable accommodation that would mitigate any spelling or grammar errors.
  • National-origin discrimination. Spelling problems are directly associated with national origin. Many immigrants have English as their second language, and national origin protection is covered by the EEOC. With English as an adopted language, those from other nations are more likely to make spelling and grammar errors in their resumes.
  • Discrimination based on age. Older applicants are more likely to have significant memory or vision issues. As a result, older applicants may make significantly more spelling/grammar errors than younger age groups. Or their shorter attention spans may result in them not catching as many of their own errors. Taken together, this will negatively impact the chances of older workers.
  • Gender discrimination. One spelling study found that men are consistently weaker spellers than women. As a result, spelling can result in gender discrimination and lower levels of gender diversity. 
  • Race discrimination. In one study, non-white job applicants got 2.3 times fewer interviews. This is partially because whenever a resume mistake raised and reinforced a held racist stereotype (e.g., African-Americans are lazy, Asian-Americans can’t speak English), that spelling error ended up disqualifying many nonwhite applicants. Therefore, using spelling may reduce your racial diversity.
  • Reducing diversity by not hiring those with lower economic status. Many argue that spelling errors are the fault of applicants because they haven’t effectively used spell-check software. However, those from lesser economic backgrounds may not have access to the software or even know that it exists. And with reduced Internet access, those from weak economic backgrounds may not have had the opportunity to read online blogs highlighting spelling as a common screening error that must be avoided.
  • Reduced diversity due to not hiring those with lower educational levels. Those who have reached higher levels of education are likely to be more aware of spelling and grammar nuances. And mostly Caucasian schools will likely have put more emphasis on spelling and grammar than segregated schools. 

5. Whoever Does the Screening Impacts the Number of Identified Errors

  • Unconscious racial biases impact the number of errors that are identified. Many resume reviewers have unconscious biases related to race. The perceived race of the applicant impacts the accuracy of the spelling and grammar assessment. One study (Nextions, 2014) revealed that when the writing is perceived to come from a Caucasian, many fewer errors were found. And although the actual number of spelling/grammar errors stayed the same, the number of found errors when the reviewer thought the writer was an African-American doubled from 2.9 to 5.8 (out of seven). 
  • The spelling skills of resume readers impact their assessments. One study found that the spelling skills of the resume reader moderated screening judgment. This means that you’ll get inconsistent results because the level of spelling errors identified will change based on the spelling capabilities of the person reading the resume. 

6. Miscellaneous Reasons Not to Screen-Based on Spelling Errors

  • Many jobs simply don’t require flawless spelling. Many manual and hourly jobs (e.g., welders and cashiers) simply don’t require any formal writing or spelling, so it’s a mistake to screen out based on something that seldom occurs on the job. Even in higher-level jobs, like in engineering and design, some people focus on details in their calculations, while simultaneously being somewhat careless regarding perfect spelling in their initial work. That cavalier attitude toward spelling may spread to their resumes. 
  • Fact: A lack of errors does not mean that the applicant can spell. Many applicants rely on the help of others and electronic spell-check software to find their resume errors. Unless you test their spelling skills directly in another manner, those whom you end up hiring may still be weak on spelling and detail.
  • Even if people themselves can’t spell, their colleagues can mitigate any weaknesses. New hires operate in a team environment where they can rely on others to identify spelling and grammar errors.
  • The rules of grammar are fungible. Most individuals assess grammar based on their own background and education. However, many grammar areas have several regional interpretations, so it is a mistake to assume that your rules are automatically superior to those used by the resume writer.
  • All errors are not equal. All spelling and grammar errors (I call them spammer errors) should not be treated equally. Obviously, misspelling the name of the company or an industry acronym may be more of an indication of a problem than misspelling a minor word unrelated to the job. So if you want to do it right, prioritize your spelling and grammar errors.
  • Many screeners go further and use style errors to screen out applicants. Many resume screeners go well beyond finding spelling errors. Some automatically screen out based on “errors.” Unfortunately, those errors often include style-related factors that are not set in concrete, so they simply can’t be equated to the importance of spelling or missing details.

Recommended Action Steps

If you decide not to completely drop this type of screening for diversity, legal or business reasons, here are some action steps that you should take to improve your hiring results.

  • Warn applicants in advance. Stop the secrecy immediately. If you’re going to use spelling/grammar as a screening device, be transparent and let potential applicants know that you consider it a measure of writing capability and attention to detail.
  • Delay the screening. The first important action step is to delay any screening on non-writing jobs until the end of the hiring process. In the end, if two finalists are equal, it’s OK to drop the one with significant spelling challenges. 
  • Substitute an actual writing assignment. If writing, spelling, grammar, and attention to detail are so important, instead of assuming that the resume is the best way to assess these capabilities, simply give finalists an actual anonymous writing assignment that they will encounter on the job. And tell them that detail matters on this assignment. 

Final Thoughts

There is, of course, no corporate research showing that resume spelling errors have any impact on a new hire’s job performance. In the best case, I have found that they are little more than an excuse to pair down quickly a stack of resumes without a feeling of guilt. In the worst case, I have found that they are a way to secretly and hopefully unintentionally screen out people who are different.

There is simply no data to justify screening for spelling/grammar for 99% of the jobs in corporate America.

And finally, if you’re feeling generous, you might warn anyone you know who is looking for a job that misspelled keywords in your resume and LinkedIn profile will negatively impact the person’s chances of being found by a recruiter during an Internet search for recruiting targets.

As seen on ERE Media on 2/10/2020.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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